In my last job, I was based in a church building which hosted a huge range of 12 Step recovery groups in its basement. The most famous of these is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but there were also groups specifically for people struggling with many of the compulsive behaviours that Brand lists above.
In my lunchbreaks, I often attended the open AA meeting which met every day with 60-80 people present. I had worked closely with addicts for over 20 years but the experience of participating in these meetings had a profound impact.
One initial thing I found disarming is that I have never been in any environment where there were so many references to God alongside so much swearing. I will never forget one man saying to me after a meeting:
‘Isn’t it so f***ing good to hear these stories of salvation?’
His comment both made me laugh and struck a chord: it was great to hear such stories.
But the theology of what he said also made me reflect. In church, we get used to hearing the word ‘salvation’ used in a purely spiritual way: often to mean the securing of God’s forgiveness and a future place in heaven.
But the salvation referred to here was immediate, tangible, concrete. It was to do with being saved now from the corrosive effect of addiction and its deadly consequences. It was still spiritual, but in a far more integrated way to life now.
In those meeting, I heard countless stories of people being saved from toxic behaviours which threatened their health, relationships, families, careers, future and their hope. People spoke about the gratitude they had for relationships with children and grandchildren that would have been lost if they had not found a path of recovery.
Grace & truth
What I learnt in those meetings was profoundly relevant to this blog because I don’t think I have ever been in environments which combined such a powerful blend of grace and truth.
They are places of grace because of the fundamental acceptance of people who struggle and know they need something beyond themselves. The absence of high profile leaders or didactic sermons means there is a tangible corporate humility and lack of ego. People are welcomed and their stories valued.
But they are places of raw truth. Some of the stories could not be more honest as people share what addiction has cost them, their on-going challenges and the steps that have taken in a positive direction. There is little overblown rhetoric or cant: people speak of the challenges of today rather than lofty aspirations.
One of the co-founders of AA, Bill W, was strongly influenced by an evangelistic society called the Oxford Group. Although he would later split from them, Wilson credited them with saving his life from his addiction to alcohol.
Although the AA movement rejected association with any particular faith or denomination, its values and practices have huge overlaps with the Christian faith.
Therefore there is much the Church can learn from the movement. For a start, I know a number of Christians who say that the 12 Steps have been the best discipleship program they have ever experienced. So I was excited to see this conference taking place soon:
This is how Brand concludes his book about the 12 Steps:
“It has given me purpose, freed me from trauma and shame. It has given me the sanctuary that I sought from each false prophet that briefly illuminated, then stained, my using life. It has shown me that sex, drugs, fame and money are no more likely to resolve the yearning I’ve always felt than porn or biscuits.
If you feel that yearning and that you’ve never quite fitted into this world then you should give yourself and this program a chance because the yearning is real, its trying to lead you home.”